About Todd Owen

I value seven events in my life above all others. My baptism--when I began walking with Jesus. My wedding--when I began walking with my bride. The births of each of my five children--miracle moments when I was reminded of the preciousness of life. Because life is precious I write, I cook, I sing in the shower and dance in the kitchen. I love good music. And, by the way, I've lived most of my adult life in a little piece of jungle on an island in the South Pacific, translating the Bible into a little known language to a forgotten people, because people are and life is precious.

Truth and the Inner Man

Pilate cynically spat, “What is truth?” in response to Jesus’ comment about those who side with him. I suppose we have all preached, taught, wrote, and discussed the nature of truth, the embrace of our modern, post-modern, post-Christian culture of relativism.

Don’t let your consideration of truth exist only in the exterior. The role of truth in pastoral health transcends the intellectual assent of objective truth, philosophy, or theology. Truth cannot be separated from pastoral health. Truth internalized, in this post, is Truth in our perception of ourselves in relation to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

Few of us have come into adulthood untouched by the effects of living in a fallen world. For some, family of origin issues exert a powerful delusion on the heart of the pastor. Mercy-oriented pastors often emerge from hellholes of rejection, abuse, and pain and bring a strong desire to heal and be healed. Just as often that desire is somewhat skewed. Others come to the role of pastor with a bullish need to control others and use the pulpit, the trust and the privilege of the pastoral office to do so. Others can’t imagine a God that really is interested in them as beings, just doers. Doing pleases and so doing becomes the primary concern while being is cast aside in lieu of doing just a little more. Others, shell-shocked and afraid of confrontation, make a decision along the way to run at the first sign of “trouble” or frustration with a church or church board.

How do you perceive yourself? How do you think God perceives you?

truthThe answers to these questions will largely impact the quality and nature of your ministry. This is the place in the post where the reader expects a list of Scripture passages or thoughts on what this looks like. This is the place in the post where this writer diverges from expectation. The truth is (pun not entirely intended) catharsis is found in each of us going to God in prayer with an open Bible and making a covenant with the Father that goes something like this: “Father, I will deal only in Truth. I will not harbor or foster deception about who you are, what your intentions are, or who I am in you.”

Perhaps you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. OK. Here’s the other shoe. He will show you, painfully and faithfully, the areas of your life where you have calculated and cultivated deception in the inner man and he will bring you to the place of making a choice—either to continue in the former deception or to embrace the truth and to power through the pain. If you persist through the pain, I guarantee that your every atom of your being will be transformed into a vessel of honor for God’s glory. You will begin increasingly to find the satisfaction in ministry that so often eludes you. You will begin to see yourself as a person serving a congregation of One. Jesus said something similar to the saints in Pergamum: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)


Longing . . . As Pastoral Health?

The Bible was almost trembling in my hands as I read Hebrews to my children. The words on the page continued to crescendo as I neared the twenty-eighth verse of chapter 9. The anticipation and intensity of those words came out almost as a whisper as I sat in awe of God’s wisdom and heart. “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Uria Dawn

I stopped reading, letting it soak in. Verses paraded across my mind, Philippians 3:20, 2 Peter 3:13, Matthew 24:30. Mark 14:62. My imagination was filled with a vision of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords riding at the head of a great host, victorious, majestic, coming to collect those eagerly awaiting a Savior from heaven. Jesus, God-man, perfect sacrifice, priest in the order of Melchizedek, resurrected, ascended to heaven, at the right hand of God, always interceding, entering the true Holy of Holies to make provision for my sin, rebellion, weakness, frailty—and coming to bring me to be where he is.

I was astounded as the reality hit home in my heart: there is but one thing, one person, standing between me and eternal damnation: Jesus. I have no righteousness that can make wrong right. I have no power over death. I have no means of assuaging the wrath and judgment of a holy God. I have only Jesus and he is sufficient. There is but one that stands in the gap—for me and for you. The One who stands in that place will appear a second time, not to bear sin (that work is finished), but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

What does this have to do with pastoral health? Everything.

When you lay your head on the pillow at night, what visions march before your eyes? When you consider the end game, what it is you want to see come to pass in your lifetime? What dream shimmers in the theater of your mind?

Maybe you see yourself, spotlight on you, in the middle of a great crowd being showered with great adulation. If this is your dream, then your stability, security, and confidence will disappear when the crowd turns against you. Your response to difference of opinion, rejection, even conflict will be frantic activity to restore . . . your acceptance. Desperate grasping often brings disease and a fidgetiness that drives you to seek a different crowd.

What if your dream is less an image than an expectation? What if your expectation is that in ministry, marriage, friendship, conflict, even relaxation God will make you a “winner,” always coming out ahead of others, always having it your way? What happens to your fruit-bearing and impact in these seasons? If you cling to this dream, you will wither and die the slow death of bitterness and resentment.

Maybe there is a better dream. In this dream see yourself as one person standing with your back to the crowd. You are pointing to something happening out in the distance. All eyes are fixed not on you, but on the horizon. In this dream, you are pointing others to the one person in the entire universe (and beyond) that can give them a dream worth living, a vision worth sacrifice. In a flash of recognition you realize that it is Jesus on the horizon. You are jittery and twittery with excitement. You grab others: “Look, it’s the Lord. He’s on his way. Can you see him?” Can it be? You are stoked, pumped, catalyzed, motivated, and exuberant. You move and speak with genuine purpose.

Longing . . . living . . . lauding the day and speeding its coming. . . not such a bad dream, eh?

Bouncing Back

Disillusionment. Discouragement. Doubt. Danger. These are words that for most of us describe the harder grit of pastoral ministry or edge-of-the-world, cross-cultural mission work. I have focused the last few years on taking a good, hard look at these realities and deciding how best a mission sending agency might help their missionaries minister with resilience.

According to Merriam-Webster, Resilience is the “ability to withstand shock without permanent deformation or rupture.” Definition b is this: “tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” It can be tricky business, especially if the missionary isn’t really in touch with his or her limits. I have found that quite often the factors in a person’s ministry that stretch them to the breaking point have less to do with the context, language, or people around them and more to do with the expectations they carry around inside. These expectations are usually formed in the secret place of the past, in close relationships gone sideways, and beliefs about God that are not in line with what God says about himself.

We can discover what our true expectations are by asking two questions. First, “Who do I think that I am?” This is a different question than, “Who am I?” The second question may be the better, “What do I believe about God’s thoughts about me?”

These two questions lead to a kaleidoscope of questions, some of which are:

  1. Whose name is at stake in my ministry: mine or His?
  2. Who sits in the center of the throne: me or Him?
  3. Whose name is being magnified and exalted: mine or His?
  4. Who is to surrender day by day: me or Him?

These are not meant to be guilt-inducing, legalistic questions intended to produce some depth of feeling. They are questions asked to provoke serious reflection on the nature of our relationship with God. They are to help us assess why we do what we do, why we think what we think, why we act and react.

If my answers are ultimately self-serving, then I will find myself hemmed in by my fears of being found out—of being a circus clown spinning plates on sticks or juggling flaming torches: entertaining but ultimately not impactful. Fear-driven, misinformed, and wandering I will live a life and conduct a ministry that has a form of godliness, but lacks power, maybe even leading some astray or away from Him.

What does the alternative look like? “Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:  “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Revelation 4:9-11, NIV84)

By His will, in His power, according to His dream, we are set free of fear and self-preservation. When the “impossible” happens, I can therefore bounce back without permanent damage. Resilience. His. Thanks!

The Crucible

Ask a Marine about the Crucible and he might tell you about 54-hours in which he must use every skill the Corps ever taught him, in addition to 48 miles of marching. Ask a playwright about The Crucible and he or she might reference the 1953 play written by Arthur Miller about Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. Ask a metallurgist about the crucible and he might tell you that it is the hollow place at the bottom of a smelting furnace where the metal collects. What if you ask a pastor? A missionary?

The Challenge

We each have different stories, ideas, or pressures. dissension  overwork, under-appreciation, a challenging ministry context, personal troubles, financial difficulties, marital strife—our crucible experiences are as unique as we are. Crucibles in life and ministry are extended seasons of adversity that serve to test, purify, and train us for eternity. One of the realities that we face is the expectation that we will still be highly functional pastors during crucible seasons. How is it possible to keep it moving on all fronts while we are enduring crushing challenges?

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he gained a reputation as an authority, even more so as a supernatural healer. When he would perform a healing, he would attempt to shush the healed or the witnesses so that he would be free to move about and minister. Notice Luke’s comments as found in Luke 5:15 and 16: “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke tells us that Jesus faced adversity in his ministry almost from day one. Every healing was challenged. Every teaching was challenged. Accusation of blasphemy flew at every turn. Yet people still came to him, attracted by the authority of his teaching and the power of healing. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Read a little further. “And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.” I can’t help but notice the proximity of this observation to Jesus withdrawing to a lonely place for prayer. Jesus withdrew, fellowshipped with His Father, returned, preached, healed (when the power was present to do so), and ministered to a people who wandered like sheep without a shepherd. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

When You Face It

When you find yourself staring at the sides of the crucible—in front of you, behind you, at your sides, take the opportunity to change things up.

First, take stock of your habits. I suppose we all, to one degree or another, give way to the tyranny of the urgent. What disciplines help you put up good boundaries? What things refresh your spirit? What helps you lay aside the very things that both compel and drain you? Use your calendar to schedule more time for restorative habits (sound like sophomore practical ministries class? Just a gentle reminder).

Second, take stock of your relationships. Are you sacrificially serving your spouse? Are you shepherding the hearts of your children? Are you seeking to meet your spouse’s physical needs for intimacy? No one wants their prayers hindered. I often find that re-connection with my spouse (when I’ve not attended to her needs) restorative and life giving.

Third, take stock of your attitudes. Is the bitterness born of _____________ taking root in your attitudes? Bitterness will make it harder and harder to find your way to the prayer closet.

Fourth, take stock of your gratitude. Bitterness and gratitude don’t usually hang out together. Intentionally choosing to be grateful will help dispel the hopelessness, cynicism, and anger that does like to hang out with bitterness. Would it be helpful to focus on something other than the Crucible (vis-à-vis Philippians 4:8)?

Last, have you taken all this to the Father in prayer? Gratitude frequently accompanies prayer.

These suggestions are but a gentle reminder of things that likely already kick around in your heart and soul. They are meant to spur you on to reflection, nudging you toward a lonely place where you can off-load the exhausting burden to God in prayer.

If you are not given to extended prayer, you may find that you emerge as Jesus frequently did, with fresh power, perspective, and peace.

How Do You Measure a Life?

I’ve been amazed over the years how words trip in and out of vogue in certain communities. When I was a graduate student, the journals, magazine articles, and study carrel conversations were filled with the phrase “paradigm shift”, referring to change in the assumptions of many Western Christians. Less formally, “shucks” became “stink” became “snap”. Leadership writing today prolifically promulgates the term “metrics”, as in, “Your process is deficient. It has no metric. How can you evaluate production?”

Enter your average pastor or missionary. You want to keep it moving on all fronts. You value learning. You desire to see God’s Kingdom gain influence far and wide. Perhaps in your reading you discover “metrics” and, as so often happens, it becomes the fascinating new concept that will revolutionize your ministry. Everything then becomes wrapped around measurability. While this concept or technique is useful, it can also derail the truly important. How do you measure the value of a casual conversation? Can you remember a conversation that changed the course of your life? How can you measure the value of faithful, consistent prayer? Can you graph the empirical changes in someone’s attitude or spiritual condition by creating a new “metric”?

Continue reading

White Space

I’ve been writing newsletters for over twenty years, mostly as a missionary but also the church newsletter when I was a pastor. One consistent piece of advice I’ve had over the years is that every newsletter should have wide margins and lots of white space. When the page is uncluttered it is easier for the reader to follow what’s being written rather than being distracted by the noise and visual dissonance on the page. As often as possible, even when I was tempted to write too many words and cram too much into a given space, I cut the verbiage down, simplified, and kept the message straightforward.
I’ve read a lot of newsletters over the years. The ones that don’t respect the rule of white space usually send a shiver through my soul and create an inner cringe. The writer’s all-too-important message is lost in the crowd (of words).
If the rule of white space is true for a newsletter, what does it look like when applied to a life? Your life is on display. Continue reading